Adventureland (2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Greg Mottola

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By Roderick Heath

Greg Mottola’s debut film The Daytrippers (1996) stood out from other mid 1990s factotum indie films through its novelistic intelligence and acerbic perspective on artistic aspiration. Adventureland, his semiautobiographical follow-up, got off the ground thanks to the success of Superbad (2007), his only intervening film, but it shares with The Daytrippers a carefully woven acuity about matters of class and culture, sex and cash, in modern American life. Modern is in the relative sense, for Adventureland is set in the neither distant nor immediate past of 1987. It concerns itself with the adventures of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man who plans to move to New York City to pursue a postgrad journalism course at Columbia University. James’ travails begin when, just after graduating, he’s told by his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) that because his father has been demoted at work, they can’t afford to contribute to either the trip to Europe he planned to take with his wealthier friend Eric (Michael Zegen), or his move.

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James searches for summer work and lands a job at Adventureland, a lame expanse of tawdry, often fixed games and rides of dubious safety. There’s even a subtle social divide between the hale and buxom types chosen to run the rides and the weedier rejects assigned to games. James is assured by owner-managers Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig) is definitely a games type. He soon makes many friends amongst his coworkers, helped in large part because of the stash of weed Eric left him, but also thanks to his decent, gentle demeanour. He declares himself to be slowly recovering from an 11-day failed romance to excuse the fact that he’s befuddled at still being a virgin. He begins a tentative romance with one of his fellow games drones, Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), after she helps him out of a sticky situation—two heavies have scammed him for one of the “giant-ass pandas” that nobody’s supposed to be able to win.

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The most admirable quality of Adventureland is also its most deceptive—offering a virtually shapeless evocation of the characters’ daily travails, the drolly recounted frauds, frustrations, inanities, and yearnings that characterise a day’s work at the fairground, whilst quietly building towards an inevitable moment of crisis. That crisis is signaled early on when it’s revealed that although clearly attracted to James, Em is carrying on a purely sexual affair with the fair’s resident mechanic, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who’s also a musician who claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed. And he’s married, too. Em is something of a question mark even to herself, daughter to a well-off lawyer (Josh Pais) and already studying in New York, but who has buried herself for almost Dostoyevskian reasons in a crummy, low-paying job for the duration of the summer. As her romance with James blossoms, she reveals a lingering, consuming outrage at her father’s marriage to Francy (Mary Birdsong), a high-strung, obnoxious social climber with whom he had commenced an affair when her mother was dying of cancer.

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Adventureland belongs in a kind of subgenre of bildungsroman movies like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), with a playful edge of nostalgic satire and a “jeez wasn’t it sucky but somehow great” take on the difficulties of negotiating the shadowy land between youth and functioning adulthood. Mottola notes with greater honesty than many recent efforts how problems of money and sex are constantly entwined, even if the breezy suburban atmosphere tends to lessen the apparent connection. James and other characters, like his dweeby but hyper-intelligent coworker Joel (Martin Starr), are all in the same boat—smart but frustrated in a dull, mind-corroding, often threatening environment and hampered by lack of cash and confidence. Adventureland is not only about James’ education in matters of love, but also in matters of economics, as he is introduced to problems of social mobility he hadn’t had to consider before.

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Meanwhile, the appeal of the rides side of the social schism is signaled by resident hottie Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), who, impressed by James’ tentative charm and ready capacity to get her high, asks him out on a date after spurning every other guy in the park. James enjoys the notoriety this gains him, but also quickly realises that Lisa’s nowhere near Em’s level. A less pleasing example of the meeting of games and rides types plays out when Joel has drunken sex with Sue O’Malley (Paige Howard), only for her to embarrassedly repudiate him the next day with the excuse that she’s Catholic and he’s Jewish, causing Em to break off her friendship with Sue. James’ relationship with both Em and Mike obviously takes a hit when he discovers what they’ve been up to, but his real disillusionment comes when he observes the petty, judgmental mindset of people he’s liked, like Lise P., and his ultimate lack of interest in the likes of them. What threatens to be a master-pupil bond between him and Mike inverts when James realises Mike doesn’t know anything about Lou Reed or women.

It’s to Mottola’s credit that his characters are not only well-rounded, credible individuals, but also accurate and familiar types: I know many of these people. The idea of using the amusement park as a microcosm of life is a genuinely effective motif, and of course, the details, from Bobby and Paulette’s fretting over the number of giant-ass pandas they have left to debating whether to sell food that’s been left out overnight, and their highly unfair games, confirm every bad feeling you’ve ever had about such seamy entertainment venues. The owners themselves are, however, hardly Machiavellian masterminds and can be relied upon to help out in a sticky situation, such as when Bobby comes out with baseball bat swinging to save James from a rampaging redneck.

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James is, initially, a fool of fortune to the point where one of his childhood friends, Frigo (Matt Bush), can still get away with casually cock-punching him whenever they meet. Eventually, he gains some capacity to stand up for himself without becoming like the obnoxious tough guys or self-satisfied yuppies who breeze by his stall. That Adventureland is the story of his learning self-reliance and emotional maturity is self-evident, but it’s also about Em’s growth as well; Em is remarkably well detailed for an object-of-desire type. Stewart’s nascent career has been badly hampered in terms of critical attention thanks to the Twilight films, but she’s quietly fantastic as a likeable but uneasy, compromised, subtly fraying girl, particularly in the sequence in which, after receiving a series of pounding humiliations, she returns home and insouciantly pours herself a whiskey whilst taunting her mother-in-law with obviously incendiary intent. Eisenberg is decent as James, even if he’s required to be little more than a slightly snappier and manlier Michael Cera. Mottola’s touch with his cast is generally skilled, refusing to allow anyone to present naked caricatures.

The most distinct flaw here is that James’s affectations are relentlessly contemporary, in his wryly disingenuous humour and generally passive Gen Y demeanour—not very 1987 at all. Finally, Mottola’s narrative does little that’s unfamiliar, and his direction is purely efficient. But his modest concision with imagery avoids both pretentious hyper-minimalism and poppy pizzazz. There’s a lot of humour in the film, most of which stems merely from dryly observed perversities of the park and period tragedies, like the incessant playing of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” and offhand details of nightlife, like a godawful Foreigner tribute band. It’s that sort of unforced detail that makes Adventureland a diverting and bracing film. l

  • J.D. spoke:
    24th/11/2009 to 3:24 pm

    Well said, sir! I really dug this film and identified and/or recognized several of its characters. Good call on the comparisons to DAZED AND CONFUSED. I would also add that it’s good a killer soundtrack like Linklater’s film, albeit ’80s gems as opposed to ’70s. I knew that I was in good hands when the film started off with a song by The Replacements and also featured, partway through, an obscure version of “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Those were nice touches.

  • Rod spoke:
    24th/11/2009 to 8:11 pm

    Yeah, the soundtrack is gorgeous. I really liked the use of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”, a motif that fitted very neatly with the main characters’ alt-culture awareness, and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” during the fireworks bit, blithely romantic. I did feel that the film gave in occasionally to the temptation to jokey nostalgia – oh look, here’s White Snake being hairy and campy on TV!

  • J.D. spoke:
    25th/11/2009 to 8:15 am

    Well, White Snake were certainly around and quite popular back in the day. And, I always thought it was a bit of a gag at their expense – that Em was so depressed she was watching a White Snake video.

  • Rod spoke:
    25th/11/2009 to 7:45 pm

    ‘Twas surely a low ebb.

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